Home > General > Change To Risk Free Rate Security to Have Profound and Immediate Impact on Valuations

Change To Risk Free Rate Security to Have Profound and Immediate Impact on Valuations

June 6th, 2011


The most implicit building block of security and company valuation is use of the risk free rate.

Whether undergoing a fairness opinion, a discounted cash flow model, or any number of other on-going concern valuation estimates, the starting point is the rate attainable with an investment in a risk-free security. It is the initial yield from which other elements of risk are added to arrive at the cost of equity capital. Simply stated, the higher (lower) the cost of equity, the lower (higher) the fair price investors would be willing to pay, given a set level of free cash flows.

Since the formulation of the capital asset pricing model, the risk free rate used has been the US government bond.

At CT Capital LLC, we use the 10 year Treasury bond, as that security best matches long-term asset programs, whether they be the building of a factory or a merger partner, from which a return on that invested capital is demanded.

Of late, as talk has gathered momentum, led by House Majority leader Eric Cantor, that politicians are willing to allow the U.S. to default on its obligations, analysts must now carefully appraise whether a defaulted security is, in the truest sense, a risk-free instrument.

One must conclude, even if a limited duration default were to occur, the answer would be no, and would be even more undeniable if seconded by a downgrade by a major credit rating agency, as Moody’s has threatened last week. Standard & Poor’s also downgraded its outlook for the U.S., citing “very large budget deficits and rising indebtedness…”

For this reason, should the U.S. Congress not come to its senses, CT Capital LLC will, if, due to QE2 or other Fed intervention, the 10 year Treasury bond not reflect economic reality, utilize an additional penalty being the cost of a credit default swap, currently 53 basis points. Thus, a current risk-free rate 10 year Treasury bond yielding 3% would in effect be raised to a 3.53% risk free rate.

Another alternative would be utilizing the 10 year rate on a liquid AAA corporates, currently 3.42%. However, even a basket of the cash instruments could present liquidity constraints and thus may not, for the time being, present a realistic alternative compared to the $9.7 trillion of U.S. debt in the hands of the public.

The brunt of a raise in the risk free rate is to force lower valuation multiples for the equity market in general, as would always be the case when the cost of capital rises. Investors demand a higher return for committing their risk-based capital as prospective free cash flows are attached to greater uncertainty reflective of the new higher rate.

Even if U.S. Government securities were to escape a default and credit downgrade in August, the tea leaves indicate it remains a matter of time before that inevitability occurs.


And when that time comes, investors, company stock analysts, and buyers and sellers of businesses, would feel a swift and powerful jolt to their reward expectations, as pronounced by the cost of equity beginning with that new risk free rate of interest.  And they will act and invest accordingly.




Kenneth S. Hackel, CFA


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